Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Of Men and Monsters

I guess I haven't been watching as many movies this year because I've been writing!

Man on Fire: This movie is not about a man who is literally on fire, sadly. Instead, it is about Denzel Washington, who is decidedly not on fire at the beginning the movie. He's out of the secret agent business and he has a drinking problem (the real kind, not the Airplane kind). His buddy Christopher Walken advises him to take a bodyguard gig in Mexico City, where people get kidnapped all the time, so he signs up to protect adorable little moppet Dakota Fanning. The development of their relationship is incredibly sweet, as she tries to crack his sullen facade, and he tries to find some meaning in his life. Inevitably, of course, she is kidnapped, and the movie shifts gears and turns into an incredibly violent revenge narrative as the man becomes figuratively on fire. Somehow, however, the movie elevates itself above similar revenge porn thanks to Tony Scott's stylish direction and Denzel Washington's soulful performance. The movie just plain feels different from other Hollywood movies: it was shot in Mexico City, so most of the characters are Latino, not to mention the fact that the main character is not white. Scott even makes the fucking subtitles pop, using them to enhance the tension. Also, I loved all the Nine Inch Nails on the soundtrack; it was very well used to represent Denzel's emotional state. Overall, I think the movie's a bit overlong, and I can understand the criticism (39% on Rotten Tomatoes, oof), but there's a whole combination of things about it that make it worth watching. B+

Locke: You wouldn't think "Tom Hardy calmly drives the speed limit while talking on the phone" would make for a compelling film but, hey, it's Tom Hardy. It's a one-man show, as we watch Tom Hardy in a car for 85 minutes and hear the voices of such luminaries as Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, and Andrew Scott, none of whom I recognized. Ivan Locke deals with a personal crisis and a professional crisis over the phone. That's it! It's a simple movie, but it's done very well, as his personal life affects his professional life, and his professional life is a metaphor for his personal life, and also he delivers monologues to his reflection/father because daddy issues. It's an experimental film, and, for the most part, it succeeds thanks to the performances, especially Hardy's, of course. But—and this may partly be due to watching it on an airplane—it is visually boring as fuck, as there are only so many ways to shoot a man driving a car. You could appreciate 90% of the movie with your eyes closed. B+

Better Luck Tomorrow: Before Justin Lin directed one of the best Community episodes ever and revitalized the Fast and Furious franchise, he made this acclaimed indie film about Asian-American teenagers with good grades and bad habits. Our Hero, Ben, is doing all the right things to get into college: working a part-time job, playing sports, getting all A's, everything. But it's suburbia and perfection is boring, so he and his friends engage in a bit of illegal activity on the side. Of course, things get a bit out of hand. Also, did I mention all the characters are Asian-American? I don't think I've ever seen a movie with this many Asian-American characters that wasn't about martial arts. (Although it's great on race, it does only have one major female character, the Love Interest.) Lin injects the proceedings with energy and verve but also tracks Ben's character arc with care, using scenes of his daily free throws and definitions of SAT words to convey his emotional progress. The whole movie is just full of honest moments, awkward and confusing, touching and sweet, horrific and scary, running the gamut of the teenage experience. B+/A-

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: There is a really good Spider-Man movie trapped in this Electro movie. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are fucking adorable together, and every one of their scenes is almost sickeningly charming. Dane DeHaan, who was great in Chronicle, gets to do a similar thing here; it takes a long time for him and Peter to hook up, but their scenes are also good. The mystery of Peter's parents is one of too many subplots but Garfield plays Peter's identity crisis well. Basically, everything that involves Peter Parker's human relationships with the important people in his life gets a thumbs up. But then there's fucking Electro, here portrayed as a nerdy, obsessive, stalkery Spidey superfan with a loose grip on reality, a sad, pathetic man who feels invisible to everyone. It should make him a sympathetic villain, and, on paper, I could see what they were going for, but everything about Electro feels tonally out of sync with the rest of the movie. He makes for a good visual spectacle but he has no personal, emotional connection to Peter; he's just there to be a comic book villain. The movie spends so much time on him rather than developing a more interesting character like Harry Osborn. There's much to like about the movie, but it's also baffling in some of the decisions it makes. B/B+

Frailty: For various reasons, this movie kept coming up in conversation, and it had never really been on my radar, so I gave it a look. One reason it came up was in the context of True Detective, and, sure enough, it has a very similar setup: Matthew McCounaghey tells a story about a serial killer to an officer of the law! He walks in to the Dallas FBI office one night and claims that the God's Hand Killer is his brother, but that's the end of the story. The beginning is that their dad (Bill Paxton, who also directs) was visited by an angel who gave him a mission to kill demons. Or at least people he claimed were demons. Fenton, the older brother, is skeptical, but Adam, the younger brother, may believe him. The movie just gets more and more fucked up from there, as their faith in God is tested. The trailer makes it look like a thriller, but it's not. It's quietly chilling. It's completely engaging, creepy and squirmy, with a touch of Southern gothic. I'm not entirely sure it all holds together, but it's got some great performances (McCounaghey is expectedly good, but I completely forgot Bill Paxton was Bill Paxton after a while because he wasn't acting Bill Paxton-y) and a lot of atmosphere. I always appreciate a simple story told well. B+/A-

The Raid 2: Somehow after the end of The Raid, Rama isn't tired of fighting, so he agrees to an undercover mission to expose police corruption TO PROTECT HIS FAMILY. He befriends Uco, the son of crime boss Bangun, and infiltrates the organization. This sequel has a much stronger plot than the first movie, which...is kind of the bad thing? Depending on what you're looking for? It's a pretty typical crime plot (gang wars, conflict between father and son, betrayals, etc), but you're here for the action sequences, which are exhilaratingly filmed, the camera wildly moving around the brutal, bloody martial arts action, which are much expanded from the original film since it doesn't all take place in one building. You've got prison fights in mud, car chases, subway battles, blood in the snow, you name it. Because it isn't as confined, however, the fights don't have the same visceral thrill as in the first one; it's a bit of a different style of choreography this time. I did love nameless combatants Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, though. The movie is a fine meld of crime story and action movie, but it's at least a half hour too long. B/B+

Godzilla: The King of the Monsters returns! Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch make out! No one has more than one character trait, if that! It's truly astonishing how paper-thin the characters in this movie are. Poor Sally Hawkins is a complete non-entity. Ken Watanabe just keeps talking about ~*nature*~. Elisabeth Olsen is scared. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the actual protagonist, is a decent lunkhead with no charisma. Juliette Binoche sure was in this movie. David Strathairn commands people to do things. Bryan Cranston is the best (human) thing about the movie, the only actor who brings any real emotion and characterization to the movie, and he's not in it as much as the trailers suggest (which I feared given his "and Bryan Cranston" credit). Why would you get actors of this caliber to do nothing? Anyway, something about nuclear bombs, something about fathers and sons, giant monsters cause destruction. The monster mayhem—as well as the creature design—is generally pretty good, except it's often dark monsters in the dark and it's hard to tell what's going on. And also I felt strangely disconnected from the action as it progressed since it felt kind of...rote? "There are the monsters, let's follow the monsters, let's try to kill them." All in all, Godzilla made me appreciate the plot and character depth Pacific Rim actually had, even though I was underwhelmed by it. But that movie showed that it is possible to have your giant monsters and character relationships too. B

The Fault in Our Stars: Everyone's favorite book about cancer kids in love comes to the screen, and it's a very good adaptation! Largely faithful to the book, it streamlines the story well to focus on Hazel, Beautiful Cancer Girl, and Gus, Manic Pixie Cancer Boy. Shailene Woodley continues to turn in great performances; I was less enamored of Ansel Elgort, who is sweet but also insufferably smug in a way. The movie shares the strengths of the book, although it can be just a tad more sentimental and sappy at times. Mostly, however, it's so honest in its depiction of characters with a limited lease on life. It hits the right emotional notes without being manipulative. My eyes certainly weren't dry by the end. B+

The Wolf of Wall Street: From the beginning of this movie about the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, told by Jordan Belfort, it seems like it's going to be Goodfellas meets Wall Street, but it never reaches those heights, despite the fact that I did quite enjoy the fourth-wall-breaking narration. Belfort works his way up from pond scum and engages in all sorts of debauchery: sex, drugs, not so much with the rock and roll. Is this movie homophobic, misogynist, racist, ableist, and highly offensive in other ways? P-Possibly? While the movie clearly never condones Belfort's behavior—and, in fact, makes fun of it on several occasions—it does ask the audience to follow this man for three goddamn hours. It's hard to tell whether he's completely despicable or has any sort of good intentions at all. The movie itself loses steam halfway through after an energetic start: the rise is more exciting than the fall. But in the end, despite another great performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, I'm left wondering why this film exists and why this man's story matters. B

Jurassic Park III: AMC ran a Jurassic Park marathon, and I caught the last hour of the first, which remains amazing, and barely paid attention to The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which I remember enjoying when it came out but I now think is probably an overstuffed, unfocused, incoherent mess (but I can't honestly evaluate since I wasn't paying attention). Jurassic Park III I remember describing as a slasher movie with dinosaurs, and it certainly is that initially until it becomes a survival tale. Dr. Alan Grant and his protégé are taken to Isla Sorna by an annoying couple, and they have to escape a bunch of dinosaurs, including a formidable spinosaurus. That's it, that's the movie. It has no higher ambitions than this, despite a trailer-friendly scene condemning InGen's actions once again. And that is why it ends up being better than The Lost World, which desperately wants to be a worthy successor to Jurassic Park and fails. Jurassic Park III simply wants to be a fun movie where people are chased by dinosaurs, and it succeeds. B+

In the Loop: While this film spin-off of The Thick of It specifically concerns a decision to go to war in the Middle East, it's timeless in its satirical portrayal of American and British governments and media. There's media spin, leaked intel, secret committees, and lots and lots of profanity, mostly courtesy of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, a.k.a. the Twelfth Doctor), who can hardly sign off a phone call without cursing ("Fuckity bye!"). Aside from the creative profanity, the humor is quite dry and British, but there were only a few laugh-out-loud moments for me. Much of it doesn't really land, there are more gay jokes than in an episode of Supernatural, and the plot becomes increasingly labyrinthine as alliances form and break. But it's swiftly paced, always moving, and generally pretty amusing. B/B+

Bride and Prejudice: In this charming adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennets become the Bakshis, and Darcy becomes American. As she did in Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha's cartoonishly accurate portrayal of Indian families hits home with me ("He's your father's sister's husband's sister's son!"). Aishwarya Rai, in her first fully English-speaking role, does well, and I could have watched her yell at Darcy the whole movie. Martin Henderson is sort of bland, though. Though there's a clear Bollywood influence, the movie cycles through several musical styles in some incredibly dorky musical sequences that the movie totally owns, even though I'm not sure how well they integrate into the whole, tonally and stylistically. It's very entertaining, and it hits the beats of the original, but I was disappointed that in a movie with "prejudice" in the title, it never directly addresses the issue that Darcy isn't Indian. It's not really an issue for Lalita, but it is for her parents, who spend the movie constantly hoping their daughter will marry a nice Indian man. Still: saris, dancing, fistfights, hooray! B+

Wall Street: After seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, I figured it was high time I see the original wolf of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko. I knew nothing about this movie besides "Greed is good," so even the rest of the cast was surprising. Charlie Sheen! Martin Sheen! Daryl Hannah! Sean Young! John C. McGinley! James Spader! Terence Stamp! IS ANYONE NOT IN THIS MOVIE. Charlie Sheen also plays a character with an animal name, Bud Fox, but he's a pretty good guy, a small-time stockbroker with big ambitions of landing the white whale of clients, Gordon Gekko. Soon enough, he's pulled into the wide world of insider trading, reaping the rewards and losing his soul. Oliver Stone keeps things moving briskly, and he makes trading stocks super exciting with kinetic camera movements and lots of shouting. It's a tight script that makes economical use of its elements, especially in the second half, and Michael Douglas makes Gordon Gekko the sort of villain we love to watch but still want to see taken down. B+/A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel: I closed out 2014 with a movie some name the best movie of 2014. I'm not a huge Wes Anderson fan, but what I'd heard about this one made me think I may enjoy it, and I did! A writer asks the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel how he became the owner of the famed institution, so he tells the story. It's cool that the main character is an Indian boy named Zero Moustafa; it's weird that he's played by a dark-skinned Guatemalan boy and a light-skinned half-Syrian man. But Tony Revolori is wonderful as a straight-man lobby boy swept into an oddball world populated by many moustachioed men playing Wes Anderson Characters. He's the only one who feels like a real person, although Ralph Fiennes comports himself well, somehow keeping his character from being as cartoony as the rest of them despite being just as absurd. Anyway, it's a romp about art thief and prison breaks and murder, and it basically has no point at all but to be fun, and it succeeds on that point. It kept me making me smile, it was so charming, and I even laughed out loud a few times. Plus, if nothing else, Wes Anderson can compose a fucking shot, holy shit. Every frame a painting. B+/A-

Next up, a random assortment of movies because you never know what to expect from me, if you're even still reading.
Tags: being indian, making the grade, movies
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